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Published: Friday, 7/25/2003

Shipyard firm to be sold again, port board told

Two months after it was sold, the company that controls Toledo's shipyards expects to be sold again, leaving local officials with a mix of fear and optimism over the fate of the region's once-thriving seaport.

The overseeing board of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority was told yesterday that Toledo World Industries, known by its acronym TWI, was expected to have a new owner by October. The port authority leases the docks to TWI, which in turn pays the agency user fees.

At stake in the latest sale, agency officials said, is the effort to revive a seaport that has experienced a drop of Great Lakes cargo by more than two-thirds since the 1960s - blamed mostly on outside factors including stiffer competition from railroads.

The seaport's user fees have been the longtime cash cow for the agency, which also runs the region's train station, two airports, and some business-loan programs. Last year, TWI pumped $550,000 into port authority coffers.

As part of an effort to boost that amount, a West Coast seaport official joined the staff last year to provide fresh insight. The agency is lobbying to expand the St. Lawrence Seaway, the gateway to the Great Lakes. And the seaport staff has begun a more aggressive marketing campaign.

But agency President James Hartung said the ultimate success of the seaport could hinge on who loads and unloads the ships - known in the industry as “stevedores.” The agency hopes to partner with a new owner to lure more shippers, but they fear a lackluster company could cost business.

“When a stevedorian contractor fails at the docks, when he provides shoddy service, when he gouges prices, these international shippers don't badmouth that firm. They badmouth the port of Toledo,” Mr. Hartung said after the meeting.

Mr. Hartung said the agency has had no complaints about TWI under its past owner, the construction firm S.E. Johnson in Maumee. S.E. Johnson was sold in April to a division of a building materials conglomerate based in Ireland, Oldcastle Materials Group.

Oldcastle now wants to sell TWI because it doesn't fit within its core businesses, he said.

He and board Chairman Tom Palmer were so concerned about a new owner that they met privately with an Oldcastle regional executive early last month.

Mr. Palmer told the board yesterday that Oldcastle has compiled a list of potential buyers and sought proposals. The port authority's 22-year-old lease with TWI doesn't require board approval to transfer it. But he said Oldcastle has “told us that our input will be taken into account in finding a buyer.”



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